Israel Starts Ground Offensive in Gaza in Bid to Halt Rockets

-- Israeli forces moved into the Gaza Strip, broadening an offensive against Hamas aimed at forcing the Islamist Palestinian group to stop firing rockets at the Jewish state’s southern cities.

“A few hours ago Israeli forces went into Gaza as part of the ongoing operation there. From the beginning, I said that the operation would be broadened as necessary, and now it is necessary,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said last night in a televised press conference from Tel Aviv.

Infantry, tanks, engineering forces, artillery and intelligence units are taking part in the ground offensive, backed by the air force, navy and other security agencies, the army said. A naval blockade was imposed at 20 nautical miles off the Gaza shore, it added.

The ground offensive is likely to increase casualties on both sides, with Israel running the risk of finding itself in a quagmire with no easy exit strategy and facing increased international pressure to call a cease-fire. The operation comes after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Channel Two that Israel was “determined” to meet the goals of the operation against Hamas.

“The objective of this phase of the operation is to intensify the heavy blow already dealt to Hamas and to take control of area from where most of the rocket attacks against Israel originate,” Israel Army spokesman Brigadier-General Avi Benayahu said in an e-mailed statement.

Obama ‘Monitoring’

In Washington, the White House said that President George W. Bush was briefed on the Israeli military’s actions, and that U.S. officials had been in regular contact with the Israelis, and regional and European officials. President-elect Barack Obama “is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza,” Brooke Anderson, his chief national security spokeswoman, said in a statement. Israel notified Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen before it launched the ground attack, CNN said.

On a road that runs parallel to the eastern border fence of the Gaza Strip, artillery rounds were heard every 20 seconds, and flashes of light were seen in the sky from the air strikes. Hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles were holding their position on fields between the road and the Gaza frontier, awaiting orders to proceed.

Palestinian gunmen clashed with Israeli troops inside Gaza and more than 30 Hamas militants were killed in the battle, Channel Two television said, citing the army. An army spokeswoman declined to comment.

‘High Price’

Hamas’s armed wing said that Israel will pay a “high price” for its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. “The Zionist enemy is getting very close to the trap we have prepared for them,” the group said in a message sent to journalists by text message.

“We will fight till our last breath, your invasion of Gaza will not be a cake walk, Gaza will be your cemetery and you have no choice but to end the aggression and lift the blockade,” Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a statement broadcast on Qatar’s Al-Jazeera television.

Hamas said it planned to send suicide bombers to Israeli cities and kidnap more Israeli soldiers. Corporal Gilad Shalit has been held captive in Gaza for more than two years.

The ground invasion will prevent rocket attacks from certain areas, isolate Gaza from Egypt, and give the army an opportunity to arrest Hamas figures who could then be used as bargaining chips to free Shalit, said former deputy chief of staff Uzi Dayan.

‘Pressure Them’

It also will allow the military to seize parts of Gaza that could be later exchanged as part of a new cease-fire agreement while at the same time enable Israel “to more effectively go after the Hamas leadership and pressure them,” he said by phone.

“Whatever the short-term goals, I believe we have to aim not just for a halt to rocket fire, but to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza completely, or any of the gains will be temporary,” he added.